Two days ago, I made my way down Avenue de Clichy to the northern edge of Paris, where I collected the documents needed for my son’s entry to middle-school; this part of the city has always appealed to me, partly for its raffish edge (the bars/restaurants with all the chancers, scroungers, the kinds of outsiders you might find in a Lou Reed song, circa 1978).
Grimy, but it’s also an extremely physical, a sensual urban space – partly because of the very many trees that provide cover, dappling the concrete in shadows – but largely because of the constant movement of people. This is not an elegant environment, but rather an ‘uncontrolled’ space that reminds me of Zamalek in Cairo – it has the same faded grandeur, very dusty - a place I visited when I was a teenager with my parents, perhaps because of the unkept forgotten architecture; the way the residents live in tiny spaces, in darkened rooms that look out on to the street.
This part of Paris could be any southern city, somewhere where there are warm nights, subtropical: densely populated and insalubrious. Close to the final intersection that marks a redevelopment site, or sites, I saw this ‘hut construction’ filled with some books, kept together with thick black tape.
I moved forward to take a photograph of the ‘hut’ on my phone. A man suddenly was standing beside me, with an impatient feel, so I stated the obvious – and said what I was doing, that I was taking a photograph. I then went on to ask the obvious, ‘Can we take these books?’ You can, he said, and walked away. Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality in English translation.
The collection of essays, written for newspapers mainly includes a piece that I have since learnt was deeply influential on activists wanting to disrupt the messages put out by the media, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’ .
‘The mass communication universe is full of … discordant interpretations; I would say that variability of interpretation is the constant law of mass communications. The messages set out from the Source and arrive in distinct sociological situations, where different codes operate,’ Eco wrote.
Such thinking is now commonplace – almost reified, it often seems via the simplistic stances of mass media versions of Identity Politics. Back in 1967, though, this idea that the way someone interprets a message was context-based – or as it became known later, identity-based – was new. When I was studying journalism decades after this essay was published, it was still open for debate, with some believing that the media had the power to directly shape and form opinion in a unified fashion, as if the message was similar to a syringe inserting information/viewpoint directly into the public’s consciousness.
There is much to appreciate in this collection, a highlight for me was his 1979 essay, more like a piece of reportage, on an Afro-Brazilian rite of the Candomblé, ‘Whose side are the Orixà on?’ It is very vivid, full of detail and recreation of an experience with people desperate to fall into a trance and thereby lose themselves for a moment.
Much of it is funny as well, with a wry touch, especially the beginning section where Eco asks himself questions about the value of the real and the fake, as he visits a series of wax museums in the United States and the Hearst Mansion, where he writes what offends is the ‘voracity’ of the selection, what is distressing is the 'fear of being caught up in venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavour, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sexual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.'
'Avenue de Clichy' Louis Anquetin, 1887
Avenue de Clichy, 2017